To date, I’ve always been a “frontline” employee. It’s been my job to execute tasks, under the direction of either a leader or a manager. From the literal front of the house in a handful of bars, pubs, and restaurants, to the figurative front lines of customer service, executing production in several organizations. My working life has been spent in service of someone else’s vision. I like to think of myself as a loyal employee, and am proud of the work I’ve accomplished.
Inspiring Loyalty in Frontline Employees
But lately, I’ve been thinking a lot about loyalty. What does that mean in the context of a career or in the context of an organization? How much loyalty do I—both as a human being who needs to handle her own life and career, and as a frontline employee—owe to an organization that employs me?
I’ve been blessed to work with some truly incredible leaders — people who lead with action. Who exhibit grace and strength, who live their values, who engage and inspire. Loyalty to them, and to the mission they strive for, was and is easy.
I’ve also worked with some mediocre (at best) managers. People who thought words alone were enough. Ready to expect the worst, with no awareness of their salient contributions to toxicity. Casually sexist. Creating put-up-or-shut-up cultures and then wondering why no one ever spoke up about issues. In those cases, I was mostly loyal to my paycheck—doing what was required to ensure that my bills would be paid, and little else.
Tolstoy famously wrote, “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” I’ve found the same to be largely true with leaders. While the mediocre (or terrible) managers I’ve had were all ineffective in varied and unique ways, the great leaders have a lot in common.
Leadership Qualities that Inspire Loyalty
From my frontline perspective, here are some of the qualities that those great leaders share:
Give Trust and Respect Freely
They simply don’t hire people that they can’t trust right from the start. That’s not to say that they were naive or blind to problems. If their trust was violated in any way that was a serious issue. But they default to trust.
Have Your Employees’ Backs
Whether it’s with a difficult customer, an ineffective process, or just knuckling through a busy period, great leaders put their people first. I’ll never forget the manager who stood up for me to a verbally abusive customer (despite the fact that he didn’t witness any of the abuse first hand). I’ll also never forget (or entirely forgive) the manager who threw me under the bus to make himself look better in front of a client.
Don’t View Frontline Work as Beneath You
They pitch in with the nitty gritty during busy times and value the efforts of their employees. The owners of a restaurant where I worked often said that they would never ask me to do something they hadn’t done themselves—and they lived out those values every day.
Be Open Minded
They have clear, well-articulated expectations, and are interested in discussion and fresh ideas. They’re not married to a particular process or way of working—they trust that their team will find the best way to get the work done.
View Your Employees as People First, Employees Second
Sure, tough business decisions need to be made from time to time, but they don’t view their team’s mere budgetary line items. Big life events, illnesses, moving on to new positions and careers, side hustles, and all the other conditions that come with being a human person are well supported, and viewed as a feature (not a bug), of employing people.
Value and Encourage Courageous Conversations
They’re not afraid to admit that they don’t have all the answers, and are open to the sometimes-difficult conversations that need to happen in business.
Inspire Trust and Respect
Most importantly, they all behave in ways that inspire trust and respect. They rely on their actions, not merely their words, to convey their vision and inspire their people.
Looking Toward Utopia
Employee engagement is a big concern for organizations. With Gallup reporting that just 33% of US workers are engaged in their work, and the increasingly volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous (VUCA) business landscape, inspiring and leading frontline workers is critical for organizations to stay competitive and thrive during change.
I’d love to live in a world where everyone had access to meaningful work that they were respected for doing. Where leaders could be trusted with the loyalty they demand from their frontline employees. Where power was viewed, not as something to exploit, but as a responsibility to be honored. But right now, it’s hard to look at the world and feel confident that this kind of utopia is even possible.
In the meantime, us frontline employees need to be judicious with our loyalties. It’s up to our leaders to inspire and support us.